There’s a reason that softboxes are a preferred lighting modifier in the world of fashion photography and portraiture. With an effect that mimics daylight, the softbox offers a more flattering light source for models and a more diverse set of lighting options for photographers. It’s a versatile staple that should be in every portrait photography lighting kit.
A Dynamic Light Source
The softbox’s enclosed area creates a light source that behaves differently from standard lights. Creating a continual rebound effect, it bounces light around within an enclosed area while creating a source of light larger than the subject being photographed.
This is much more flattering for portraits than other, unmodified lighting setups. For example, the use of a softbox allows for more control in either obscuring or softening certain facial features, giving the photographer more freedom to decide what to bring attention to, such as the nose, chin, eyebrow ridges, lips, or even small blemishes.
While softboxes can create the same vibrant glow that hard lighting typically offers, they also feature much smoother transitions from light areas to dark. In this case, softening the light lowers the chance for harsh shadows that can over-emphasize a facial feature. The key is in the distance between the softbox and the model.
Distance is Key
When using a softbox for portraits, photographers will typically need to unlearn some lighting habits. With these lights, sizing and proximity work inversely to the usual behaviors of light sources. For example, a softbox produces softer emphasis on a subject as the two move closer together. Generally, photographers tend to place softboxes too far away from their subjects, so it’s always a good idea to test spacing and experiment with different distances.
Another thing to consider is that the effect of the light from a softbox is different on directed reflections, such as eyes, and diffused reflections, such as skin. For example, if you are photographing a subject with the light placed farther away, you'll need a stronger power to achieve the correct exposure. This stronger power will result in a brighter and smaller reflection in the eye because the light source is farther away and bright. If you move that light closer to the model, you will have to decrease the power of the light to achieve the same exposure.
Using a softbox can be as easy as simply aiming at your subject, but this tool offers so many possibilities that you’ll find it difficult not to experiment with new techniques. The two most important things to keep in mind, however, are positioning and communication. Using a softbox for portraits usually involves giving great directions to your model, as well.
A Variety of Lighting Effects
When shooting portraits in a studio or on location with a softbox, photographers can create many different looks by just using one light. And by utilizing spacing and different tools, a softbox can drastically change the look and mood of your photos.
Large softboxes cover a larger area with fewer defined shadows. Small softboxes result in harder and much more defined shadows in the background. If you’re not sure which size to choose, a good tip is to get very large softbox lights and utilize different diffusers and filters. It’s much easier to soften and dampen a strong light than to increase the power of weaker light.
It’s important to experiment constantly and try new ways of using your softbox, but here are some great ways to start creating stunning portraits.
1. An Effervescent Glow
The best way to create this effect is to use a smaller, more enclosed space. The softbox should be placed very close to the model and, you, as the photographer, should also be positioned within that same sphere of light. Using the sphere as your measurement tool makes this technique fairly simple.
2. Crisp and Clean Portraits
For a clean and more commercial look, place a large softbox directly in front of your model. Add a reflector underneath for fill and an additional catchlight. This look and feel is perfect for beauty images and standard portraits.
3. Form a Silhouette
It may seem counterintuitive, but placing the softbox behind your model can create a surreal image. Using the softbox light itself as the background of your portrait will create strong shadows that form a beautiful silhouette.
4. Movie Poster Lighting
An effect that is easy to create by using a softbox is movie poster lighting. By positioning the softbox below eye level, you can push the light upward to bring different facial features into focus. By moving your model’s head around, you can test the different lighting effects.
Softboxes can be used in such a variety of ways that a portrait photographer could use a softbox exclusively for all their lighting needs. They are also lightweight and compact, making them ideal for the studio, as well as at different locations.
Something as simple as replacing your key light with a softbox can dramatically change the look and feel of your photos and, when you use accessories like additional lights, fill cards, and post-production software, the possibilities are endless.
Excited to experiment with a softbox? Tell us why in the Comments section, below.